The ‘mini’ Future Of Education

Wed, 04/10/2013 - 3:55pm
Joel Hans, Managing Editor,

Connected to a laptop I can’t afford, on the far end of a tangle of cords, is an exposed circuit board peppered with objects I can name — resistors, diodes — but not explain. The computer itself is running software that I’m not capable of programming myself. But none of that matters, and, in fact, is part of an educational plan from National Instruments’ Academic Program. They want to help students of all types and levels of intellect “do engineering.” That difference — to learn on miniature versions of real-world problems instead of slogging through problem sets in an overpriced textbook — could be enough to better prepare America’s students for the high-tech work that’s inevitably to come.

Dave Wilson, Director of National Instruments’ Academic Program, has been chasing this dream of helping student engineers and scientists “do engineering” for years, and he’s confident that time has finally come. The company has recently announced the availability of its miniSystems, which are educational tools built onto a small, affordable circuit board.

National Instruments has collaborated with a number of various electronics design companies, such as Elenco and Pitsco Eudcation, to built single-board experiments in operating an electrical grid, analyzing the earthquake resistance of a structure, or the power output of an RC car via dynamometer — to name a few. These boards hook into the NI miDAQ low-cost data acquisition device for students, which then distributes data to the company’s LabView software. Tutorials and example projects are included, so students over a wide range can get things moving straightaway. Almost all are less than $99, which helps reduce costs for educators.

The concept of “doing” education, instead of just passively learning it, isn’t exactly new — nearly everyone did chemistry experiments and dissections at some point in their secondary school years. But bringing that level of experimentation to engineering is relatively new, and could lead to even further advancements down the line. It’s an exciting time in the learning industry.

The Educational Problem

Wilson argues students are not being shown the ways that engineering theory applies to real-world applications fast enough. The longer the wait, the more that get burned out, and that’s never good, particularly when there’s a massive labor shortage for those who can handle high-tech manufacturing processes. He says that the problem isn’t with the teachers, but rather the tools that we are currently using to turn students into professionals.

“I think the profession of teaching is an incredibly important one, and by and large, I think our teachers do a great job. If there’s any hindrance, I think it’s because of the effort we have to make to bring the tools to them that are readily accessible and ‘ready-to-learn.’ Our whole ‘do engineering’ message is about giving those tools, in the best possible way, to educators, who are asked to do tremendous work on a shoestring budget and with no time,” he says.

Right now, educators often have to come up with their own curriculum, which can take an extraordinary amount of time. That is an unfair burden on their time and bandwidth, which would be better spent on the students themselves. With the miniSystems, Wilson imagines teachers and professors being able to buy a few experiments, plug it in, turn on the software, and be ready to go. He says, “The focus turns away from burdening the educator, and it turns to the discussion with students about what physical phenomenon is taking place.”

At the core of the dilemma is that we’re not using our technological advances to their fullest extents in the classroom.

For Wilson, the realization about technology and education came as he thought about the miniaturization of basic mechanical systems — they might be smaller, but they behave in the same way, just with different magnitudes. He says, “Small systems, by and large, can very nearly replicate what happens in big systems. For instance, if you’re going to drop a pendulum, you bump it into a big bumper, you can see an energy absorption. A very similar thing happens when it’s 1/24 the size.”

The miniSystem philosophy, then, is pretty simple to follow: Provide educators with smaller, cheaper real-life systems that come with a built-in curriculum that can be executed without much extra input. And after the initial roll-out, educators have an enormous flexibility to alter said curriculum with their own ideas, using the various miniSystems, in order to expand their students’ understanding of a given mechanical concept.

But in order to really understand how the potential of miniSystems to change engineering and manufacturing education, I needed to give them a test run.

Playing With The miniSystems

The fundamentals of setting of a miniSystem are nearly trivial: All one needs is a computer with the included software and an NI myDAQ. The miniSystems are plug-and-play to the truest sense, and the software automatically detects that they’re connected, primes them for experimentation. Setup is trivial — I’d expect today’s batch of students, even those as young as middle school, would have no qualms getting a miniSystem up and running.

I started with the myTemp system, which is a small circuit board that comes with three thermistor inputs to read the temperatures of liquids. The included experiment is simple enough: find three different types of cups and fill them with equal amounts of water at an equal temperature. When I did my experiment, I found a paper cup, a free, company-branded plastic cup, and my usual ceramic mug. It was a simple as dropping a sensor in each one, hitting “record” and watching the temperatures drop. Yes, it’s a simple experiment, and wouldn’t blow away an engineering major on its own, but I did learn that my freebie, Advantage Business Media-branded plastic cup is as good an insulator as a handcrafted ceramic mug I’ve been clinging to for more than a decade.

Of course, one of the primary benefits of the miniSystem architecture is that while the included experiments are relatively simple, there’s an enormous amount of leeway to experiment after the fact.

One of the more fun miniSystems is the myQuake, which helps students understand some fundamentals of engineering structures to withstand forces from beneath the dirt. And here is where the miniSystem diverges from some standard “shop class” experiments that many did in middle school. Most of us did something like build a bridge out of balsa wood, or a tower, to see how much weight it could hold. But as Wilson says, that experiment doesn’t have a real-life counterpart — it’s not very realistic to put a million-pound weight on top of a skyscraper to test its structural integrity.

Wilson asks: “What do they do in laboratories? What’s the University of Nevada do? What do our big structural test labs do? I can tell you what they do — they put servo-hydraulics on the base of these big things and they shake these structures. They shake bridges.”

I clipped the included accelerometers onto my makeshift office supply structure and started up the servos, ramped up the amplitude. I could see the structure shaking, and that was reflected immediately in the LabView software. I tested with different axes, and various shapes and S-wave strengths, which proved to me the incredible range of possibilities. Middle school students could do simple tests for integrity, while college-level engineers could learn about resonance frequencies. Wilson says it’s completely possible to build a miniature version of the enormous mass dampers used in real-life skyscrapers to see how they add stability.

Wilson spoke at length about an “intuition” that an engineer forms through experimentation. Developing a “mental toolbox” is critical to any engineer who wants to, say, design a skyscraper that stands or plane that will actually get lift. He claims the miniSystems can provide some tools to fit inside that toolbox via the principle of “getting your hands dirty” with miniaturized grids and dynamometers alike. Although I don’t have the theoretical background that the target audience would have, I could immediately see the truth behind that accumulation. Although simplistic, I quickly realized that certain structures, when shaken, were more stable than others.

Clearly, the miniSystems have a great deal of potential. And while NI’s current offerings focus primarily on engineering students, there’s no doubt that they’ve opened up an educational niche that I hope is soon filled with more experiences for aspiring engineers and manufacturing professionals.

Reducing The Skills Gap

Everyone in manufacturing is certainly aware, to some degree, that there’s a significant gap between the demand for skilled engineers and manufacturing technicians, and the available workforce. Between employees who have been left out in the cold, so to speak, when it comes to the rapid advances in manufacturing technologies, and current students who are seeking work in other industries, there is a real problem, and any attempt to help mitigate the damage are worthy of our attention and praise.

Wilson sees a future where industry benefits from a generation of students who will be able to say, “I’ve actually done that before. I’ve actually run that thing. I’ve actually run a roll chassis dynamometer on my desk.”

And that could be just the difference, because it’s not only the lack of skills that is forcing manufacturers to come up with less-than-ideal solutions to get the work done. It’s a lack of follow-through, in that many STEM students end up taking their talents elsewhere before they walk away with a college degree. Giving them an opportunity to experience the sheer level of complexity — and, dare say I, creativity — in engineering, they might not turn the other cheek.

Wilson summarized his mission well. He says, “The point is: Let our students actually try things, and make things as simple as possible, and to develop an intuition in the students where they have a feeling on how all these technologies actually work. Then they’re much more ready to participate in developing the next generation of systems and airplanes and cars.”


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